Obesity in the workplace continues to be a pressing issue because obesity rates continue to rise across the United States. This creates concerns for the two-thirds of the adult population that can be considered obese or overweight, as well as the organizations that employ them. In addition to the physical consequences of being overweight, heavy individuals may also be the victims of stigmatization and prejudice. Common stereotypes associated with heavy individuals purport that they are less hardworking, less conscientious, and less happy than non-heavy individuals are. Because weight is not a protected class under federal discrimination law, obese individuals may also feel that their weight affects their work experiences through both formal (i.e., overt) and informal (i.e., subtle) discrimination.
However, much of the research regarding weight-based discrimination has focused on the experiences of women and on identifying if discrimination occurs, not why discrimination occurs. A recent study conducted by Ruggs, Hebl, and Williams (2015) aimed to better address these gaps in the literature through two experimental studies. The first study examined the extent to which obese men experienced discrimination as both a job applicant and retail customer. The second study examined whether or not negative attitudes about heavy employees were transferred from individual employees to the products they sell or organizations in which they work.
WEIGHT DISCRIMINATION: DOES GENDER MATTER?
Study one examined whether or not obese men experienced discrimination when applying for a job or visiting a store as a retail customer. To conduct this experiment, male undergraduate students (or research “confederates”) visited 223 stores across multiple malls located in the Southern United States. The confederates dressed either naturally or in an obesity prosthetic; that is, in some store visits the confederates appeared non-obese, while in others, they appeared obese. A second confederate silently observed the interaction between the actual store employee and the first research confederate, to look for evidence of both formal and informal discrimination.
Formal discrimination was measured by documenting the responses the store employee gave to questions asked by the confederate. For example, one week before the experiment, each of the retail stores indicated that they were hiring. However, if an employee told the research confederate that the store was not hiring, formal discrimination was documented. Informal discrimination was measured by watching the store employees’ behavior when interacting with the confederate such as smiling, pursed lips, and eye contact.
The results of this experiment showed that heavy confederates were more likely to experience informal discrimination than formal discrimination. In addition, heavy confederates experienced more informal discrimination (e.g., less personal and more hostile interactions with store employees) than non-heavy confederates. As a result, this study provided support for the idea that men also experience weight-based discrimination.
HOW ARE HEAVY EMPLOYEES AND THEIR ORGANIZATIONS PERCEIVED BY CUSTOMERS?
The second study expanded on the first with the aim of better understanding potential customers’ attitudes toward heavy employees and the organizations in which they work. For this experiment, 298 college students watched a marketing video that showed either an obese or non-obese employee delivering a sales pitch for several products sold by a fictitious company. After watching the video, participants were asked to rate the employee, the organization, and the products they viewed.
The results of the study showed that when individuals were shown a heavy employee, they were more likely to rate the employee negatively on appearance, carelessness, and professionalism. These negative evaluations of employees were then transmitted to the organization and associated products. That is, negative evaluations, based on stereotypes of heavy employees, led to more negative evaluations of the organization.
The current study suggests that job applicants, retail customers, and employees may experience stigmatization and discrimination as a result of their weight. The results from two studies show that: (1) males, in addition to females, experience weight-based discrimination, (2) heavy employees can trigger negative stereotypes about overweight individuals, (3) which can then result in negative evaluations of the organization and its products.
So what is an organization to do? First, organizations should conduct diversity training that includes overweight individuals and discusses stereotypes associated with heavy individuals. This may potentially help to reduce discrimination against individuals with whom employees interact, including job applicants, customers, and other employees.
Second, the authors suggest that organizations should incorporate individuals of all sizes in their organizational messages and marketing materials. As a result, heavy and non-heavy individuals will be perceived as a representation of the organization, and may help to change stereotypes about heavy individuals. This may lead to more positive customer attitudes about heavy employees and their respective organizations.